Unearthly Ambitions – The Story of Cynic #1: Early Demos ’88-’90
In January of 2020 we lost Cynic's Sean Reinert, one of the greatest and most influential metal drummers of all time, producing work of esteemed progressive and death metal that felt at times like the first real fruitful union of the two worlds. Later that same year, we would lose Sean Malone, the same group's bassist, as well as the mastermind behind the instrumental group Gordian Knot. They were by every account kind and humble men, adored by friends and family both; in an era where we are often confronted with the sins of the recently-deceased, sins often left uninterrogated in life for reasons ranging from the nefarious to the lazy, the pure adoration shown to these two men was a notable and beautiful thing. Any grievances were minor in the face of their profound impact on the worlds of art and personal relationships they had left behind, signs of humanity rather than condemning accusations. The pain felt at their loss was and still is a profound one. While I cannot speak to the sense of loss felt by their loved ones and bandmates, I can speak to my own sense of personal loss. I've written before about my intense personal relationship with Focus, an album which often felt like an island for me in the terrifying turbulent waters of adolescence, especially the days when identity and certainty felt more consistently under siege. That the group so deftly and confidently wove together nearly every space I was interested in, from death metal to jazz fusion to progressive rock to philosophy to theology, felt like a validation, an encouragement. That the group in turn received enough adulation over years that felt to the members like roaring silence and indifference that they returned to give us another phase of the band's career including a true peer to Focus in Traced in Air felt likewise like a completion of the circle; from love to love returning.
Given these losses -- as well as a similar project I recently completed in memoriam of Neil Peart of Rush -- it felt fitting to compose a project in honor of those two men and the legacy they left us in the shape of Cynic. For Rush, this process was a rather simple one; at 19 studio LPs and one studio EP dispersed at fairly regular four-album cycles, that project's arrangement into five great slices felt self-evident, while the lack of side-projects and stray material over the years made approaching the totality of Rush's legacy a near and concise if decade-spanning endeavor. For Cynic, this is slightly complicated. There are the obvious points, of course: their three studio LPs and one studio EP chart an obvious history of the group. But the occasional great spans of time between work, not to mention the vast shifts in sound and directionality between them, makes this an obviously incomplete methodology. There are certain obvious evolutionary inflection points that make sense to include, then, such as that band's demos (a luxury we do not have with Rush, save for a single 7" of material not found on studio records) or the record Human, the core of the band cut with Death. But this, again, only accounts for a certain amount of the group's evolution, offering a fuller picture of where such a forward-thinking record like Focus came from but not accounting strongly for everything that would come after, especially the more obviously progressive and alternative directions the band would take nor the reasons for their reunion over a decade later in the first place.
The next obvious point to cover, then, would be the Gordian Knot records which were the first to feature a full reunion of the Focus-era lineup since the close of those tours, a fact that was quietly only mentioned on a sticker on the wrapping of the record on which it occurred. Those records, in turn, feature Sean Malone's bass work's evolutionary shift as well as compositions that seem to more obviously, if incompletely, bridge the gap between the group's early death/thrash metal material and the later more progressive and alternative material. It would make sense in turn, then, to include Malone's sole record recorded under his own name, the album Cortlandt, which served as the precursor to Gordian Knot. It would be unfair, then, to include Malone's solo-and-band led material and not include Aeon Spoke, the alternatively-minded group Reinert and Paul Masvidal operated under just prior to the group's reunion which, in turn, explains some of the more alternative rock ideas that emerged in those later Cynic recordings.
The final piece of the puzzle comes from the Portal demos, the short-lived band that Cynic morphed into following touring for Focus. It was on those recordings, a full studio album's worth, that the group began their first concrete steps away from death metal and towards progressive metal, extending Focus' development itself not further into extreme metal, but instead further into those extracurricular influences. With that piece in place, the full evolutionary gap between Focus and Traced In Air, as well as the group's iconic sound's proper development comes more fully into view. In turn, the fullness of the both the group's legacy and those of the two great men we so recently lost becomes more concrete and complete; an attempt to offer proper critical insight into their legacy fixated solely on one or two records would feel as incomplete as improper and insulting, shortening the fullness of their lifetimes of art to a few key recordings. Because even Focus's story isn't the story of a legacy artifact; it is the story of art that grew more and more beloved over time that grew in estimation and appreciation enough to generate an entire new phase of the group's career. So, too, must a thorough and rigorous approach to their body of work be carried out.
It's tempting to dive right into the first demo: the meat of the material, the technique and the songcraft and the tone and the aesthetic holism that sums up that earliest document. And this temptation, admittedly, at first seems well-grounded; a real and significant analysis of music, after all, whether it be the culture surrounding it or the history of the documents or the great magical ineffable air and fire the artform generates, must inexorably be rooted deeply and foundationally in the music itself. That other stuff is great, don't get me wrong. We don't listen to music, truly, for the music itself but instead for those other elements as well. This is why I'm Listening to Death Metal has its current shape, for instance; what matters in art is not the art in isolation nor even necessarily the intended form of the art but how the genesis, creation and long life of these works entwines themselves in our lives be it as audience, creator or mere witness. To look more firmly at that initial 1988 demo by its lonesome would inevitably not give us any of what we are looking for when we look at it from the vantage point of 2021, knowing full well the legacy of the group that was to come.
Our shock, then, is pressing play and hearing precious little of the progressive metal they would inevitably develop into. Instead, replacing the futuristic cybernetic Buddhism is a brutal and chunky thrash metal, that primordial soup from which death metal would one day rise. This is, notably, the second recording of the duo of Masvidal and Reinert, whose first recorded performance together was mystery group Seaweed's The Seaweed Creature, a seemingly lost recording. It is not a shock that they are death metal here, given the band's long pedigree in that style and the year it was recorded. Instead, what's shocking is just how little of the Cynic sound to come is present in these riffs, which instead feel closer in spirit to Dark Angel or the half-tech/half-brutal death-thrash of Morbid Saint. The vocals here are neither predominantly a stomach-rumbling death growl nor the cyber-saint vocals, instead hewing to a half-shout endemic to thrash at the time, often feeling caught between Slayer's contemporary works and Possessed's from the period. Paul Masvidal is the sole guitarist here, and the clarity of a single guitar player allows a more organic sense of interplay between bass, guitar, and drums. This, in turn, gives the bass a more prominent presence, competing with less in the mix, and sees the early justification for the already-busy style Reinert was developing, intent on filling those empty spaces with frenetic percussive energy.
There is a level of punkish energy here the band seemingly never returned to again, offering this earliest demo a shocking clear identity in comparison to the rest of their work. It feels often less like a band developing itself, especially given the short lives vocalist Jack Kelly and bassist Mark van Erp were to have in the band, and instead like two key players in Masvidal and Reinert developing themselves. The biggest shocks are the players' ages, here all teens; this was material as dense and well-executed in the realm of thrash as was being produced at the time, with Masvidal already adept at lightning fast shifting power chords and jaw-clenchingly tight riffing, and Reinert having a strong intuitive sense of drum orchestration even in these simpler terrains. Most impressive, however, is van Erp's basswork. Those who know Cynic's history know his primary competition as that group's bassist are the illustrious Tony Choy (also formerly of Atheist and Pestilence) and the legendary Sean Malone. His work here prefigures those later players, however, signifying either that the group's two core members always had this sound in mind or that these performances are what impressed that notion upon them. The bass' sharp, trebly presence is highlighted through a combination of arrangement, performance, and mixing, rather than just a single element of that triangle.
For instance, the bass here does not support the guitar as in a great deal of heavy metal, acting as the low-end bass information for the riffs rather than standing apart as its own instrumental line, but instead supports the song, adding additional rhythmic and melodic information in addition to its broadly harmonic role. Space is given in the songs' arrangements, allowing the bass to pursue these other interests, something not terribly shocking in effectively a power trio setup. After all, one of power trios' most commonly cited problems in the rock format is precisely filling space. The fact that Cynic pursued the same more riff and internally complex methodology of groups like Cream or Rush before them is no great shock. It is circumstantially interesting, however, given both their subgenre and their age, that they would give bass effectively equal positioning against guitars.
To really highlight this relationship, the bass is mixed in a way that pierces through the mix rather than offering a low, earthy and warm rumble beneath it; van Erp is a vocally active participant in these songs, at times playing busy and at others laying back into a repeating groove, but always is present in the mix, despite this being a demo produced by teenagers. This choice effectively elevates this earlier material compared to other similar demo projects from the late '80s, which often suffered from a muddy sound that either, depending on your ears, is endemic to extreme metal as a whole or was one of the key limiting factors to its further development. Regardless of whether that muddier production is a net positive or not, Cynic's choice even at this stage to have a clean(er; this is still a demo, after all) production of the three constituent instruments allows elements of the overall arrangement to stand out in a way that is both shocking and refreshing for a young death/thrash band.
But, as stated before, it is impossible for the vast majority of us to read this demo in isolation from the body of work the band would one day accrue. There is a hypothetical nobility in pretending this path is available to us, but this is a thought predicated on an impossible lie, one in which we are not writing or reading this article based on Focus and the lengthy legacy and full body of work that would be birthed from that record. From this perspective -- looking backward -- we are thus freed from answering certain questions. It is no longer particularly relevant if these choices' approaches to bass playing and the overall songs' arrangements were made with the intent to inevitably develop into the shape we took. Instead, we can reverse the dialectical process of creation-over-time and see the seeds of the future buried here. It becomes all the more shocking, then, that given Masvidal and Reinert's presence on this earliest document, it is not either of their work that bears the strongest relation to the Cynic they would become (though the soloing and drum's arrangement approach has some key similarities) but instead the bass playing, an element not covered by either of them.
Reflections of a Dying World, Cynic's second demo, is a complexly frustrating work. On its own, it has some powerful and fascinating redemptive traits. It is, for instance, Masvidal's vocal debut, handling the vocals at least in some capacity from here forward. On Reflections of a Dying World, it is his harsher thrashy vocal stylings which are on display, foregoing both the deeper growl occasionally present on the debut demo and the later vocoder-based teknorganic approach that would define Focus. Likewise, this recording is lead guitarist Jason Gobel's debut, a player who would stay associated with the group up through Portal's demo record. This also functionally makes this Cynic's first recorded material featuring twin guitars, an element necessary for their later arrangements which would be marked by complex and progressive underlying guitar with fluid jazz-fusion and prog rock driven leadwork over top, all married against a rhythm section producing virtuosic grooves.
Despite these important historical developments, ones which would bear later fruit, Reflections of a Dying World instead often feels like a frustrated half-slog, especially in comparison to the debut demo. This is largely due to a mix and approach to arrangement that didn't seem to quite know how to account for the sonic presence of two guitars as well as bass. The group wisely understood, giving Reinert a key position in the mix and sonic balance. Masvidal's vocals are the balance's second element, kissed with just enough production magic to give them shape and definition against the busy backdrop. This, at times, is not precisely to the benefit of the material; while Masvidal's heart is certainly in these performances, his capabilities as a vocal performer were clearly not as developed as they would become, nor were they anywhere near his acumen as a guitar player. The punky approach borrowed from their first demo here feels vestigial, giving these songs a hardcore sheen that otherwise is completely lacking from the rest of the instrumental parts. These types of frissons and juxtapositional genre elements can be sharply compelling in some contexts, but here it feels more like a missed development, one the band seemed to identify as well, given this being the final record bearing that particular vocal approach. That mismatch of energies and approaches only becomes a keener issue when placed front and center, as it is within the mix, becoming a constant focus of attention rather than something that can safely fade into the middle distance.
The next layer is the guitars: all of them. Twin rhythms and stray lead lines seem to jockey for position below the drums and vocals, only really able to take a firm command of the sonic stage when the vocals aren't present. This isn't a bad thing in and of itself; that kind of guitar-driven intensity, especially in a metal or hard rock context, is part of what gives this space the frenetic animalistic intensity that is one of its primary draws. The only issue this creates is when, at the end of it all, there's precious little room to fit the bass in among all of those elements and their relative desired positions. To be clear, when taken by its lonesome Reflections of a Dying World doesn't frustrate on this mark; not knowing how or where the bass can or should be positioned in their earlier work doesn't produce that sense of loss or frustration and the ear can more keenly focus on the more shapely and evolved approach to riffing as well as the markedly more confident progressive flourishes of Reinert on drums. In the world where this is their debut demo, it would stand confidently. After all, these songs are notably more compelling as compositions, feeling at once markedly more death metal in terms of their heft and meat than the '88 demo, as well as providing a more obvious sonic connection both to the later work with Death, Master, and Monstrosity, but also to the particular approach to progressive and technical death metal showcased on Focus. However, it isn't their debut; placed after a fellow demo recording recorded only a year prior with a more inventive and catching approach to arrangement and bass mixing in an extreme metal context, knowing that the approach showcased on Reflections of a Dying World is less representative of the band's later sonic approach than its predecessor, it's hard not to feel frustrated somewhat.
This, however, is one of the key benefits of demo recordings, especially prior to a group's proper debut. They allow these types of exploratory gestures when it comes not just to writing and arranging, but to recording, producing, and mixing as well. A record, after all, is not just the rote summation of performances plucked from the aether; they are performances filtered through the materiality of a specific instrument plugged into a specific cable into a specific amp playing into a specific mic, all of which is mixed with specific equipment of varying kinds and qualities. The functions being demonstrated, especially in DIY-heavy spaces like heavy metal (especially the kind in contact with the worlds of punk and hardcore), are all of these constituent elements. In fact, the collated elements up for exploration go further; they include band names, song titles, approaches to lyrics, record titling methodologies and accompanying art. Sometimes we are driven to an overly-extreme approach to criticizing bands that have not yet left this stage or, worse, judging matured and active bands by decisions and experiments embarked upon within this demo stage. Sometimes, such as revelations of problematic approaches to lyrical or art subjects, these can potentially be fruitful tells of what we might expect later down the line. In other cases, they are more easily dialectically understood as temporary experiments that were considered improper for the project and thus not particularly relevant to the final presented project-and-band.
As such, and within the context both of where we know the band would go and where the band had been thus far, it's easy to come to the conclusion of Reflections of a Dying World being a necessary step via negation. The pieces were in place, but the image assembled here wasn't quite right: something the band must have known given its lack of recurrence over the remaining span of the band's life. And hey, at least we got four neat and grimy death metal tunes out of it, right?
The untitled 1990 demo's opening moments announce that the previous two demos' issues were now a thing of the past. These recordings are the perfect synthesis of the previous era's working elements, featuring the cleaner, balanced stereo field, and the first demo's bass presence with the second demo's tighter guitar work. Gone are the punkier gestures, the band seemingly having outgrown these tendencies, leaving us instead with a hybrid of late '80s death/thrash, and the beginning traces of the technical and progressive gestures that were to come from their career proper.
This demo serves an interesting historical function for Cynic as a band, one at which they arrived via comparison to the other technical and progressive death metal groups in their class, namely Atheist and Pestilence. In each of those two instances, we have earlier and more direct death metal records that precede the more abjectly progressive works that would come. From Atheist, this is their debut Piece of Time coming just before Unquestionable Presence; for Pestilence, it is Malleus Maleficarum and Consuming Impulse preceding Testimony of the Ancients. Cynic, meanwhile, had no such recording, at least in the popular canon. Their studio debut felt ahead of its time, a cybernetic-organic alloy emerging in the distant past, with each record after only going further along that line. Even adding Human, for which Masvidal and Reinert composed the band's core backbone, into the timeline didn't really offer that same insight into the group's properly grounded death metal roots, given that album's similar hyper-progressive approach, especially compared to other records at the time. The 1990 demo, while still rippling with progressive arrangements and energy, is ultimately a death metal record at heart, crafted at a period where the band was clearly integrating other thoughts into their material as a way of increasing the excitement of the core death metal, rather than what would come later when that hardened seed had cracked open to show the lurking life within.
Pivotally, all of Consuming Impulse, Piece of Time, and this demo were released in 1990, gesturing to a general mood in the air (historically speaking) for death metal. In other areas of the world, we had the beginning gestures towards black metal which would come to fruit in the next two to three years; elsewhere in Europe, we had the dual creations of a slower and murkier approach to death metal alongside an increasingly sharpening melodic sensibility. But the death metal these three releases gestured towards was, in 1990, the very heart of the style, hybridizing thrash metal's increasingly technical impulses and the wretched and blood-soaked halls of extreme metal's growing progressive ambitions with the desire for thuggish brutality. For years, Cynic had been excluded from this relation, this image of the group preserved only by the few who managed to see them live or were engaged in tape trading with the young group. Having access to the 1990 demo, it is easier to place them back into this continuity we know they must have emerged from.
Historically speaking as well, this is the demo that landed Reinert and Masvidal their gig with Death, and it shows. Their first two demos were laden with Death worship, which was sensible given their similar locale of Florida and similar interest in death metal, but seemed ensnared by the earlier rawer sound Death, themselves, shed relatively quickly. These three songs are not only better recorded, they also show a markedly more developed compositional acumen, punching between angularity and silky smooth almost chrome melodicism. The Masvidal and Gobels guitar duo doesn't just show promise here; their tandem work here is precisely as good as what was to come in Focus and better as a duo than what would be put to tape with Human (commenting more on the relation of the two players than necessarily the compositions themselves). Reinert still feels reined in here compared to the progressive and fusion terrain he would eventually roam, but his sense of freeness and polydextrous beat-building are beginning to take shape, achieving here for the first time the fluidity necessary to build his later substantially more complex playing.
Most importantly, however, is the introduction of Tony Choy on bass, the only man to have played in all of the trio of Cynic, Atheist, and Pestilence at some point. This resume hallmark is validated even here, his earliest recording with any of the three groups. His playing bridges the gap between van Erp's punchy countermelodies and counter rhythms present on the first demo and the density of Sean Malone's fusion work on Focus forward, showcasing ample virtuosic post-Rush licks. Cynic's style was always an inverse of most other metal bands of their stripe, hewing closer to the mold of Metallica than Cannibal Corpse, letting the rhythm guitars be the rhythmic foundation for the songs while the traditional rhythm section was allowed more room for color and ambiance. Here, Choy uses that to help restore Cynic's initial ambitions demonstrated on that earliest demo, helping to close the distance between Cliff Burton and Geddy Lee in that quintessential '80s prog/thrash fashion, itself often the defining holdover that helped generate the progressive and technical death metal boom of the early '90s. It's hard to imagine these recordings having the same power, even with Masvidal's sharply improved vocal performance, without this approach to bass making its strident return.
Shockingly, none of these three songs would make their appearance on Focus and, until the commercial re-release of these demos, were more or less unheard by the general death metal public. In retrospect, with the recordings available, it is hard to understand this choice. Obviously, given Focus' release three years later and the two key records informing its creation being as-yet unpenned, the group chose to include their newer material over the material here, which would have been relatively old by that period. The demo's recordings themselves stand capably side-by-side with the Focus' initial mix released in 1993. These compositions help reinforce the death metal still lingering on the otherwise prog metal masterpiece that is Focus. It's not hard to imagine another timeline where these songs were rerecorded and sprinkled among the playlist to offer that more bestial kick to an otherwise cerebralist dream record. Obviously, the choice seems more closely tied to the group's aesthetic shift, favoring an increase in liquidity and alien/Buddha hybrid sensibilities that were only in their infancy here, present largely only in the lead tones and guitar soloing approach. Still, this tendency to daydream comes only from the marked quality of composition, performance, and recording on display here. These songs are gold-plated and, especially given their sole appearance here, help to strongly justify the demo-oriented mindset many death metal fans deep in the underground had. The thought of not hearing these songs, once heard, feels unthinkable; this is mandatory death metal for the listener as much as the historian and critic.
This leaves us at an intriguing position in Cynic's broad history. It is not impossible to imagine the group swapping bassists, holing up in the studio, and cutting Focus immediately following this demo, especially given their rapid aesthetic advances as a group shown by these first three demos. This, however, was not to be the group's history. What was to come was the group effectively splitting apart, with Masvidal and Reinert temporarily joining Chuck Shuldiner in Death to write and record Human, while Jason Gobel would assist Monstrosity in the writing and recording of their debut Imperial Doom (also featuring original Cynic bassist Mark van Erp and future Cannibal Corpse vocalist George "Corpsegrinder" Fisher), and Tony Choy's move to Atheist to replace the then recently-deceased Roger Patterson. In the midst of these other dalliances, the group would reconvene to write and record another demo, this one ushering in their signing to Roadrunner Records, the home of Focus' eventual release. It is this span of history and development that will be the focus of our next chapter, to be published in two weeks.